As we approach the Nativity fast, we prepare to hear the accounts we know well from Matthew and Luke: the different genealogies, the story of the annunciation, the traveling to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the wise men, and, of course, the baby lying in a manger. But I want to discuss a rather different Nativity narrative. One that often goes unnoticed. The one presented in the Gospel of John. It is my position that St John did in fact write his own version of the Nativity story in the first two chapters of his gospel account. This can be established through three parallels found in the differing gospel accounts.
First, the incarnation by flesh in time, and its relationship to the “birth” of the Logos before time.
Second, the shepherds whom Christ drew into witnessing the miracle of His birth and the servants whom Christ drew into witnessing the miracle at the Wedding of Cana, and how each prefigure the fathers of the Church.
Third, the temptation of Christ by Satan parallels the “temptation” by the Pharisees when Christ over turns the tables of the money changers.
The Nativity stories all begin with their different genealogy accounts: that of Adam, Abraham, and God the Father, as “Father”. In each case, the Evangelists are emphasizing different typologies of Fatherhood. St Matthew starts with Abraham, St Luke starts with Adam, St John starts with God the Father. It is their intended purposes that account for their difference. St. Matthew’s purpose is to show Christ is descendant of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people and, therefore, of the faithful of God. As St Ambrose of Milan says, “For Abraham was the first who deserved the witness of faith; ‘He believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness’ (Romans 4:3).” St. Luke takes a wider view, showing that Christ is the Son of Humanity, as His father is Adam. But it is St. John that takes the most expansive view and begins his nativity with how Christ is the Son of God Himself; and how God the Father, through the Logos, is the Father of creation.
St Chromatius of Aquileia has this to say on the gospel of St. Matthew:
“Indeed, both Matthew and Luke began their narratives with the corporeal birth of the Lord. John, however, addresses the issue of Jesus’ divine birth in the preface of his Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. This was with God in the beginning. All things were made through him and without him nothing was made.’ (John 1:1-3) The Evangelists help us to recognize both the divine and corporeal birth of the Lord, which they describe as a twofold mystery and a kind of double path.”
What St. Chromatius says here is multifaceted. On the surface, he is directly taking on several heresies (namely Arianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism). St. Chromatius also reveals St John presenting the Nativity of our Lord as the “birth” of the Logos from God the Father before time. St. Chromatius goes on to say, “He fulfilled the law at the time by completing the sacrifices of the law and all the examples prefigured in himself… by accepting a body.” This is the twofold mystery, or the double path, Christ’s birth before time and His birth in time. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) Here we are told a deep mystery of the Incarnation. At the Incarnation, Christ fulfills all three emphases, all three spheres, of Fatherhood. In the first, because He is God, He perfects Abraham’s faith and fulfills the example of Abraham, the spiritual father of the Hebrew people, prefigured in Himself. Second, He fulfills Adam as the New Adam. And finally, He allows us to become Sons of the Father through and in His physical body, for He is the first born of a new creation. (1 Cor 15:20; 2 Cor 5:17; Rev 1:5)
In other words, St John is speaking to our future birth, to our ability to become Sons of God. (John 1:12) Just as we are children of Adam through physical means, and the Hebrews were children of Abraham both by physical means and through faith, God the Father allows us to become Sons of God “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13).
Our second parallel, that of the shepherds in Bethlehem to the servants at Cana, will take a little more unpacking. We all know the verse: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8) There are several terms to discuss first: what is a flock? What is keeping watch? And what are shepherds?
At the outset, “shepherds” here means exactly what we would think: the lowest class in society, the poorest of the poor. (Here I am reminded of the Magnificat, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”) (Luke 1:53) God invites the lowest class, those poorest in Israel, to witness the miracle of His birth. That is, the revelation of God manifested in the flesh. St John records the wedding at Cana as the first miracle Jesus Christ performed, also saying, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory;” (John 2:11) In both cases, Christ invites servants to witness His miracle for, “the servant is not greater than his lord,” as He truly is the Good Shepherd (John 15:20; John 10:11) But there is yet another understanding of shepherd, flock, and keeping watch.
In his commentary on Luke, Pope St Gregory says, “It was in a mystery that the angel appeared to the shepherds while they were watching, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, implying that they are thought worthy above the rest to see sublime things who take a watchful care of their faithful flocks; and while they themselves are piously watching over them, the Divine grace shines widely round about them.” What the shepherds were then, our Bishops are now.
What Pope St. Gregory says about the shepherds resonates in another scholar regarding the servants at the wedding in Cana. Though not an Orthodox saint, Alcuin of York (8th century) in his commentary on John says, “The servants are the [fathers] of the New Testament, who interpret the holy Scripture to others spiritually.”
The witnessing of the miracle of Christ’s birth by the shepherds is also echoed in the servants at Cana witnessing Christ’s first miracle. “Many excellent things were accomplished at once through the one first miracle. For honorable marriage was sanctified, the curse on women put away (for no more in sorrow shall they bring forth children, now Christ has blessed the very beginning of our birth), and the glory of our Savior shone forth as the sun’s rays, and more than this, the disciples are confirmed in faith by the miracle.” (St Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on John)
Notice what St Cyril says. “Now Christ has blessed the very beginning of our birth.” St Cyril recognizes in the Gospel of John the very nativity written in Matthew and Luke. Christ initiates us into His birth, so we can be born again and “given the power to become Sons of God,” and have God as our Father. Again, that of Nativity as relationship of Father and Sons.
There is one final way these three Evangelists parallel telling the Nativity: the temptation of Christ. Satan tempts Christ by saying, “If you are the Son of God.” Matthew records this twice (Matthew 4:3 and 4:6), while Luke records this once (Luke 4:3).
On Matthew, St John Chrysostom writes, “… in vain God has called You Son, and has beguiled You by His gift; for, if this be not so, afford us some clear proof that You are of that power.” And St Cyril of Alexandria says this on Luke, “Satan said, ‘if you are the Son of God, bid this stone become bread.’ He approaches him, therefore, as an ordinary man and as one of the saints, yet he had a suspicion that possibly he might be the Christ. How, then, did he hope to learn if this was the case? He reasoned that to change the nature of any thing into that which it was not would be the act and deed of a divine power. For it is God who makes these things and transforms them. ‘If he does this,’ said the devil, ‘certainly it is he who is expected to subvert my power.’”
It is important to highlight just why Satan was not aware that Jesus is the Christ, for he was not initiated into the mystery of the incarnation! He was not invited to be a witness. Otherwise, he would have recognized that Christ had already answered his demand, for Christ had already changed the nature of a thing, that is human nature, in His own flesh, as St. Chromatius had said, by “accepting a body.”
“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’” (John 2:18) Like Satan, they tempt the Lord demanding He prove to them who He is. At the same time, the Pharisees were not witnesses at the wedding of Cana, where Christ “changed the nature of [a] thing,” that is, water into wine. Remember, too, that the wine which Christ offered at the wedding parallels what Christ offers humanity in the Resurrection. It is better than what Adam had in the Garden. And the waterpots were for purification, since Christ first “purifies” human nature at His incarnation.
St Irenaeus of Lyons says this on John, “Know ye therefore, that every lie is from without, and is not of the truth. Who is a liar, but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? This is antichrist.” Here we see, once again, the parallel of Sonship and why Christ says that the Pharisees are, “children of their father, the devil” (John 8:44), while revealing (at the same time) that they are neither of their spiritual father, Abraham, (John 8:39) nor of God (John 8:42).
For me, this is where the Nativity story is completed, this being a spiritual rendering of the Nativity, that of Fatherhood and Sonship. In each of their renderings, the Evangelists invite us to witness the first miracle of our Lord, that “change of nature” and manifestation of the glory of God. This “change of nature”, perfected in the Lord’s own body at His Incarnation (that of the unification of human nature with the Divine Nature), is what the Saints are promised in the Resurrection. As St Chromatius tells us in his commentary on Matthew, “He took from us what is ours in order to give generously what is his.”